Mexploitation and Mexican Identity

Just like Blaxpoitation, sexploitation and other exploitation genres, Mexploitation cinema is another group of typically low-budget movies that seek to appeal to a specific sector of the population. Specifically, Mexploitation films integrate elements of exploitation and Mexican culture. In addition to low budgets, these films have discernible characteristics that allow one to categorize and recognize them as Mexploitation. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of Film Studies, Mexploitation belongs to a larger group of exploitation films categorized as latsploitation, which is defined as “a type of exploitation film produced in Latin America, a popular and diverse genre appearing in a number of national contexts” (Kuhn and Westwell). However, due to Mexico being the largest producer of these films in Latin America, the term Mexploitation had to be coined. Not only did these films enjoy success in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, but they were “also exported and screened on the US ‘midnight movie,’ or grindhouse circuit” (Kuhn and Westwell). Mexploitation films range from monster movies with vampires, Aztec mummies, and other creatures, to “luchador” movies (El Santo and others), which continue to draw cult devotion to this day. Although these films are diverse in subject matter, horror is an element that is present throughout the majority of the catalogue. The primary concerns of this paper is to understand why and how horror was used, what Mexploitation says about Mexican identity, how it evolved, and how audiences in Mexico and abroad interacted with the films.

Analyzing Mexico’s sociopolitical climate of the first half of the 20th century is a productive way in which one can understand the context and genesis of Mexploitation films. Gunckel in “El Signo de la Muerte and the Birth of a Genre” discusses the origins of the Mexican horror film, and presents indigenismo as one of the discourses that attempted to restore a “national identity in crisis” (121). Indigenismo is understood as an ideology with the purpose of defending and giving value to the indigenous people of the Americas (Bueno). In Mexico, however, it became an essential component of policy and was thought of as the official ideology of the government (Bueno). Indigenismo was not only the central ideology of many policies, but it also permeated through the arts. The most notable examples are Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who “invoked the indigenous past as both subject matter and formal strategy” (Gunckel 121). Many, however, denounced indigenismo and criticized it as an attempt to both appropriate and assimilate indigenous culture. In fact, “the cultural legacies of indigenismo were similarly condemned as representations of indigenous people by non-Indians” (Bueno). The discourse of indigenismo was also found in Mexican cinema of the time with productions like María Candelaria (1943) and Río Escondido (1947), among others (Gunckel 121). Although these were acclaimed at the time, both in and outside of Mexico, they presented a romanticized and nostalgic version of indigenous culture due to their alignment with the philosophy of indigenismo.

While mainstream Mexican cinema of the era usually presented “a simplified, romanticized glorification of an apparently homogenous indigenous culture,” another group of films sought to question this notion by “situating the Aztec past as horror” (Gunckel 121). Thus, it seems that Mexploitation films, in part, emerge in response to this discourse; they challenge the so-called admiration and oversimplification of indigenous people and their culture. As opposed to utopian landscapes and “tragically noble Indians,” Mexploitation films turned to “human sacrifice, decaying corpses, and maniacal scientists” (Gunckel 122). These characteristics reveal both an aversion toward the concept of indigenismo, and make the anxieties of the era all the more apparent. More than being satirical, Gunckel argues that these films “engage issues of national identity in a period of social transformation, using cinematic horror to engage the tensions and anxieties of a Mexican culture and nation in transition” (122). In other words, understanding these films as parodies would be a simplification because such reading ignores the sociopolitical and historical contexts in which they were produced.

To further reject the notion that these films exist as solely satires, Gunckel engages in an analysis of both the concept of parody and El Signo de la Muerte. First, the author cites Dan Harries’ definition of parody as:

The process of recontextualizing a target or source text through the transformation of its textual (and contextual) elements, thus creating a new text. This conversion—through the resulting oscillation between similarity and difference from the target—creates a level of ironic incongruity with an inevitable satiric impulse. (qtd. in Gunckel 123)

However, although most Mexploitation films—including El Signo de la Muerte—do ridicule indigenismo, they also demonstrate the influence of highly recognizable horror films and imitate many of their generic/cinematic conventions. As a result, Gunckel points out, the distinctions between the “target texts” and the “new text” are not caused by parody, but are a consequence of the genre’s “translation to a Mexican context” (124). To successfully study Mexploitation films, one must consider the multiple intertexts at play. In the case of El Signo de la Muerte for instance, “Cantinflas’s (actor Mario Moreno) persona and career, the politics of filmmakers, Mexican comedy film, the horror genre, melodrama, parody, indigenismo, and sociohistorical contexts” are some of the distinct aspects that would allow a more nuanced understanding (Gunckel 124).

In addition to rejecting indigenismo, it seems that Mexploitation films also flourished during the 1950’s and 1960’s due to political and economical reasons. Doyle Greene in Mexploitation Cinema states that the film industry itself suffered from several difficulties in the late 50’s (6). In particular, the economic collapse of the industry led to a virtual nationalization; the Churubusco-Azteca studio—one of the top producers of Mexican horror films—was practically absorbed by the Mexican government (Greene 6). As a result of this nationalization, films had to go through censorship boards in order for them to be distributed and exhibited. However, the reasons for rejecting a scene or even a movie altogether were generally arbitrary, which is why it evolved into a “pattern of self-censorship” from the filmmakers’ part (Greene 6). This issue generated ambivalence in filmmakers to engage in social or political commentary, and established cinema as a tool of the state apparatus (Greene 6). In other words, due to the government’s involvement in every aspect of the film industry, one can assume that the majority of the movies produced during that period of time were predictable, propagandistic, and nationalistic.

Moreover, Greene explains how, “much like Hollywood studio system, the Mexican film industry’s structure came to resemble the structure of industrial monopolies, and its production practices mirrored the principles of assembly lines” (7). That is to say that profitability, rather than artistic output, became the major concern of the film industry and is the reason why Mexploitation films were so popular during that era. Due to this factor, some have argued that movies like El Signo de la Muerte, the many films of El Santo, and others of the Mexploitation cycle are the epitome “of the decline in both the artistic quality and the social relevance of Mexican cinema” (qtd. in Greene 7). Greene, however, argues that simply thinking of Mexploitation films in those terms completely undermines their cultural function and ignores the fact that they do reflect many of the “concerns and problems of contemporary Mexican society in highly complex ways” (7). Moreover, the fact that these Mexican horror films were extremely popular (especially among young people) says something about their appeal and uniqueness, regardless of their categorization as low-budget.

Regarding their production, even though they are often recognized for their low quality and “camp appeal,” Mexploitation films were produced by major studios, which employed many well-known producers, directors, screenwriters, and actors in Mexican mainstream media, like Cantinflas for instance (Greene 10). This characteristic is similar to what Hollywood studios were doing with film noir. Greene asserts,

While often consigned to the category of bumbling amateurs (which is not meant pejoratively) . . . the great mexploitation directors are better compared to Jacques Tourneur — a director who helmed Hollywood studio films such as the film noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947), the classic horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie… (10)

That is to say that Mexploitation filmmakers and producers were essentially well-respected professionals in and outside of the genre, and sometimes even outside of the industry. Likewise, actors and actresses were not simply “B-movie journeymen and cult-film icons,” but popular, professional and competent artists that appeared in various genres and “even avant-garde films” (Greene 11). Examples of this include Mexploitation actors starring in Jodorowsky’s El Topo, in Buñuel’s Simón del Desierto, and others, which were instances were cult, horror, exploitation, and experimental cinema intersected (Greene 11). Therefore, Mexploitation films should not be categorized as incompetent in every aspect of their production nor should they be discussed simply as ‘low-brow trash.’

To address this particular issue, Greene discusses Sontag and Newitz’s framework of camp and cheese respectively. The latter refers to,

A parodic practice and a parodic form of textual consumption . . . and like camp, cheese describes a way of remembering history, a kind of snide nostalgia … the point of cheese, whether deliberate or ‘read in’ by the audience, is to offer criticism of social norms, to regulate their power in the ash can of history through the ‘productive’ use of derisive laughter. (qtd. in Greene 12)

Although both Sontag and Newitz champion cheesy and campy movies, Greene points out how these classifications assume readers have a certain superiority over a text, which gives them the ability to discern when a work is intentionally cheese/camp and when it is not (13). In other words, both camp and cheese readings suggest that the text in question is inherently beneath the readers and their own superior taste practices, and that assigning such values to movies “is ultimately a disservice to such texts” (Greene 13). When considering Mexploitation texts, for instance, to merely limit them to categories in which the reader, and not the creator, has the power, ignores how many of the films in question could very well illustrate forms of alternative cinema. The author states: “many films consigned to camp or cheese status may in fact represent a form of alternative and even experimental cinema through their very disregard of conventional form, coherent narrative, and cinematic realism” (Greene 13). A more productive framework to understand these texts could be Sconce’s definition of paracinema. According to Sconce, paracinema aspires “to the status of a ‘counter-cinema’ by encouraging an unconventional vision of cinematic art, and by “aggressively attacking the established canon of ‘quality’ cinema and questioning the legitimacy of reigning asthete discourses on movie art” (374). In this sense, texts maintain their autonomy and are not dependent on any given reader’s ‘superiority’ to categorize them as camp. To do so, especially with non-Western films, would be paternalistic and culturally blind.

Furthermore, Greene uses Sconce’s theory to discuss Mexploitation and pointedly states how Mexican popular culture and its films only become camp or kitsch by having someone else impose such a status (14). Because Mexploitation films were made under very specific national, cultural, economic, political, and ideological conditions, it is naïve to use Hollywood’s parameters to qualify them as bad. In fact, to illustrate these films’ uniqueness, one can look at how lucha libre (wrestling) was incorporated into the horror genre. The films of El Santo, the most famous luchador, became “virtually synonymous with mexploitation” (Greene 11). This could very well have been a byproduct of the television ban on lucha libre in the 1950s and the audience’s desire to see luchadores on screen (Greene 11). Thus, the incorporation of lucha libre, the hybridization of the genre (melodrama/horror/), and the rejection of indigenismo means they followed their own set of rules and conventions. While they indeed borrowed heavily from Universal horror films in terms of plots, monsters, archetypes, and even specific scenes, they deliberately took from each other (Greene 16). In fact, some Mexican horror screenwriters practically redefined the concept of ‘self-reference’ “given the sheer volume of recycled material in their scripts” (Greene 16). The fact that this practice was done so frequently and openly suggests that producing material anchored in pastiche and hybridity was the end goal.

Given that these films reflect very particular idiosyncrasies, one cannot help but wonder how they were received outside of Mexico. According to Greene, due to the aforementioned singularities of these films, Mexploitation’s unconventional formal strategies “force the (American) viewer to alternate between accustomed, comfortable, traditional Hollywood codes and unfamiliar, ‘disruptive, counter viewing codes’ — codes specifically suited to a Mexican audience” (16). In other words, the American spectator must go back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar, or between domestic and foreign. Additionally, Greene suggests that the wrestling scenes, which were central to the Mexploitation cycle, would often seem pointless and alien to American audiences (17). However, these were of extreme importance to Mexican viewers. With regard to melodrama, the excess of this element in Mexploitation would often strike the European or American viewer as cheesy and even old-fashioned, but the fact is that melodrama is a fundamental component of Mexican society and Mexican mass culture (Greene 16). This, along with the time that usually elapsed between a film’s production and its exhibition in America, often made these films appear extremely dated (Greene 16). As a result, if the Western viewer took some pleasure in watching these films, it was usually a consequence of irony. In other words, “the American viewer [became] an ironic commentator rather than a passive spectator” (Greene 18).

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that Mexican immigrants and other Latin American communities in the United States could have genuinely enjoyed these films. Mexican Movies in the United States by Agrasánchez for instance, aims to study the patterns of viewership, distribution, and exhibition of Mexican films across the border. Although no specific comment is made on Mexploitation films, Agrasánchez’s research shows that, during 1951, Mexican films played on 683 screens in 443 cities; of these establishments, 100 were Texan theaters that were sometimes “devoted exclusively to Spanish-language entertainment and some integrated Mexican films into their programs with varying frequencies” (qtd. in Comiskey 92). If going to the theater has always been a communal experience (particularly within cult cinema), it is safe to assume that the exhibition of Mexican films was extremely vital for the formation of immigrant communities. In fact, theaters became places where these groups could express “cultural pride” and build relationships outside of the “hostile Anglo environment in which immigrants often found themselves” (Comiskey 92). In an era when immigrants were usually forced into assimilation, the opportunity to engage with material from their own cultural background was an extremely significant practice.

Although Mexploitation films enjoyed great popularity during the 1950s and the early1960s, production soon began to wind down. Greene attributes it to the impact of the Tlatelolco massacre, which had an unimaginable impact on the Mexican psyche:

October 2, 1968, was the starting point of a new crisis in Mexico: on that date, an interval began during which the country lost confidence in its present, ceased celebrating and consolidating its achievements and miracles. […] The crisis of 1968 … was above all, a political, moral, and psychological crisis, a crisis of values and principles. […] It was the bloody announcement that the times had changed, without changing the means to confront them. (qtd. in Greene 166)

The massacre indeed brought many changes. With the next presidency (Luis Echeverría, 1970-76) came an attempt to bring order and ‘calm’ back to the country. This resulted in economic reforms like luxury taxes and in seemingly more progressive politics, which trickled down to the Mexican horror film industry (Greene 167). As a result of a less conservative agenda, censorship soon began to lose its strength; this meant that nudity and graphic violence soon began to appear in Mexican movies. It is worth noting that Santo movies and other Mexploitation films were usually released under the “all ages” rating (Greene 167). Although efforts to revitalize this cycle of films took place by including “actresses in bikinis” and incorporating scenes of “Hammer studios-inspired bloodshed,” these were overshadowed by truly risqué movies like El Topo or Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (which contained a crucifixion-murder) (Greene 167). In addition to these issues, the lucha libre works that dominated the Mexploitation scene began to seem outdated by the 1970s. Not only because of the recurrent plot-lines and tropes, but also because of their view of “Mexican morality and society” (Grene 167). The previous conception of Mexican identity and morality became essentially inapplicable after Tlatelolco.

Overall, the Mexploitation body of work is worthy of study because it reflects many aspects of Mexican identity and idiosyncrasy. These movies, which mostly consist of a mix between Hollywood horror narratives, lucha libre, and indigenous concerns, constitute a significant sector of Mexico’s film industry. Scholarship by Gunckel suggests that the birth of the Aztec horror film was a product of indigenismo policies in the years that followed the Mexican Revolution. Horror was an effective tool to deal with the societal and political anxieties of the era, which is also why it became a staple in Mexploitation films. In addition to challenging indigenismo and ultimately questioning the glorification of the indigenous past, the films were also a direct product of the economic crisis of the film industry. Nonetheless, Greene argues that to simply understand these films using an economic lens is an over-simplification because it ignores their cultural and historical value. In defense of Mexploitation, both Gunckel and Green approach this subgenre by placing emphasis on the autonomy of the texts rather than discussing them in terms of parody or camp, respectively. Although it is safe to say that Mexican audiences greatly enjoyed these films because they included elements of popular culture and were part of the national vernacular, it is unclear whether American audiences derived pleasure from them due to their ‘campiness.’ Thus, more scholarship on how American and other Western audiences interacted with the films needs to be conducted. Finally, even though significant production stopped in the 1970s, Mexploitation films, especially those with El Santo, continue to be part of Mexican popular culture and will probably continue to be for generations to come.

 

References

Bueno, Christina. “Indigenismo.” The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, American Cancer Society, 2015, pp. 1–2. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1002/9781118663202.wberen477.

Comiskey, Andrea. “Mexican Movies in the United States: A History of the Films, Theaters, and Audiences, 1920-1960 (Review).” The Velvet Light Trap, vol. 60, no. 1, Oct. 2007, pp. 91–93. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vlt.2007.0011.

Greene, Doyle. Mexploitation Cinema : A Critical History of Mexican Vampire, Wrestler, Ape-Man, and Similar Films, 1957-1977 /. McFarland & Co., c2005., http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0511/2005011057.html.

Gunckel, Colin. “El Signo de La Muerte and the Birth of a Genre: Origins and Anatomy of the Aztec Horror Film.” Sleaze Artists, edited by Jeffrey Sconce, Duke University Press, 2007, pp. 121–43. Crossref, doi:10.1215/9780822390190-006.

Kuhn, Annette, and Guy Westwell. “Latsploitation.” A Dictionary of Film Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012. http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199587261.001.0001/acref-9780199587261-e-0404.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style.” Screen, vol. 36, no. 4, Dec. 1995, pp. 371–93. academic-oup-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu, doi:10.1093/screen/36.4.371.

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